Every year, on 22 April, Earth Day marks the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement. Songs about the natural world, including those by Woody Guthrie, have been around since the 40s, and many of the greatest songwriters have penned compositions about the planet on which we all exist. The best Earth Day songs, then, reflect not only the ways in which our planet has changed over the years, but also the ways in which we have expressed concern over its survival.
To mark Earth Day, we have selected our 20 best environmental songs. Though we weren’t able to squeeze in all our favourites – and had to leave out wonderful songs by Ken Boothe (‘The Earth Dies Screaming’), The Byrds (‘Hungry Planet’), Miley Cyrus (‘Wake Up America’), Bo Diddley (‘Pollution’), Peter Gabriel (‘Here Comes The Flood’) and Country Joe McDonald (‘Save The Whales’) – we scoured reggae, jazz, country, folk, soul, rock and pop for songs both disturbing and inspiring.
Here’s to this amazing endangered world of ours. Think we’ve missed any of your best Earth Day songs? Let us know in the comments section, below.
20: John Martyn: ‘One World’ (1977)
The song ‘One World’ was recorded in a Berkshire barn. John Martyn remembered it as a time when the adjoining farmhouse was filled with Jamaican friends and their children who were in England to visit Island Records boss Chris Blackwell. The title track of his masterpiece album features one of Martyn’s greatest vocal performances, against his echo-saturated guitar. The song has a beautiful simplicity, as he sings, “It’s one world, like it or not/It’s one world, believe it or not/It’s one world.” Nearly three decades later, when Martyn was reflecting on the song, he believed he had captured a zeitgeist moment. “‘One World’ has now become a phrase used all over the television,” Martyn said. “Took ’em a long time to f__king realise. I don’t think many people knew the expression before then.” The tune is superb – a perfect expression of how we are all individual and universal at the same time.
19: U2: ‘Indian Summer Sky’ (2010)
Bono’s longing for spiritual renewal was reflected in his song ‘Indian Summer Sky’, which is about the desire to return to a more organic world (“the seasons change, and so do I”). Bono wrote the song in New York and said he was trying to convey “a sense of spirit trapped in a concrete jungle”. Sixteen years earlier, U2 had allowed a live version of their song ‘Until The End Of The World’ to appear on the album Alternative NRG, which raised funds for Greenpeace. U2 were joined by other bands, such as Sonic Youth and UB40, on an album recorded live with a solar-powered mobile facility. Guitarist Brian May of Queen contributed the song ‘New Damage’.
18: Dar Williams: ‘Go To The Woods’ (2012)
Since the dawn of industrialisation, poets and songwriters have been extolling the spiritual and mental health benefits of getting out into nature. Dar Williams wrote the powerful song ‘Go To The Woods’ in 2012, a composition that expressed her fears that the green spaces of the world are disappearing. Touring musician Williams devotes her spare time to environmental causes, not least her Give Bees A Camp project, which combines concerts and planting bee-friendly gardens for schoolchildren. Williams has also covered Joe Strummer’s rousing song ‘Johnny Appleseed’ (“If you’re after getting the honey, hey/Then you don’t go killing all the bees”).
17: Johnny Cash: ‘Don’t Go Near The Water’ (1974)
On his 1974 album Ragged Old Flag, country singer Johnny Cash addressed the political issue of the environment, through the device of a nostalgic song in which a father warns his son that they cannot eat the fish they are trying to catch. Though the acoustic mood of the song is upbeat – Cash was joined on guitar by Carl Perkins – the lyrics are bleak: “There was a time the air was clean/And you could see forever ’cross the plains/The wind was sweet as honey/And no one had ever heard of acid rain.”
16: The Beach Boys: ‘Don’t Go Near The Water’ (1971)
Mike Love, who co-wrote with Al Jardine a different song also called ‘Don’t Go Near The Water’, said he hated the ignorance that made people “violate the laws of nature”. Love and Jardine were encouraged by The Beach Boys’ then manager, Jack Rieley, to write an environmental song for the band, and the result was the anti-pollution plea that became the opening track for their 1971 album, Surf’s Up. The prescient lyrics about man poisoning the sea were sung by Brian Wilson and the band. The downbeat mood of the song was heightened by the eerie Moog synthesiser playing of Daryl Dragon.
15: Woody Guthrie: ‘Talking Dust Bowl Blues’ (1940)
Photographs of the dust storms that wrecked southern America in the 30s are still shocking, and the devastation and migration they caused prompted Woody Guthrie to write his brilliant album Dust Bowl Ballads. “I met millions of good folks trying to hang on and to stay alive with the dust cutting down every hope,” said Guthrie, who made poetry out of despair.
14: Tom Lehrer: ‘Pollution’ (1965)
In ‘Pollution’, the brilliant satirical singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer warned visitors to America about the environmental problems of his home country, and the way his nation’s air and water was being blighted. A short film of ‘Pollution’, featuring a cartoon of a bird playing the piano at a rubbish dump, combined with scenes of industrial contamination across the States, was made for the US Communicable Disease Centre. The bitingly funny lyrics included the verse “Just go out for a breath of air/And you’ll be ready for Medicare/The city streets are really quite a thrill/If the hoods don’t get you, the monoxide will”.
13: Randy Newman: ‘Burn On’ (1970)
Randy Newman was poleaxed by back pain and lying on the floor in 1969 when a television news item came on about the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, literally catching fire once again, because it was filled with oil waste. His disturbing song, sung at a maudlin pace with slow piano, is full of potent imagery: “The Cuyahoga River goes smokin’ through my dreams/Burn on, big river/Burn on.”
12: Rush: ‘The Trees’
Rush lyricist Neil Peart once commissioned some drum makers to build him an entire kit from a 1,500-year old piece of Romanian wood. Peart recalled that he wrote his song ‘The Trees’ in “about five minutes”, after seeing a cartoon picture of trees “carrying on like fools”. He said: “I thought, What if trees acted like people? So I saw the song as a cartoon, really, and wrote it that way.”
11: Queen: ‘Is This The World We Created…?’ (1984)
Queen singer Freddie Mercury said that he sometimes felt helpless about the state of the planet and that was the reason he and Brian May penned ‘Is This the World We Created…?’. Mercury went on to explain that he and May “were thinking about poverty going on all around the world and that’s why the track came about… it was a way of showing that I can do my bit”. The song, which reflected the suffering of children, came at the time of natural disasters in Africa which had resulted in terrible famine. Queen performed the song, which was on their 1984 album, The Works, as the encore to their famous Live Aid show in 1985.
10: John Prine: ‘Paradise’ (1971)
In 1971, singer-songwriter John Prine wrote his marvellous song ‘Paradise’ about the environmental damages of strip mining and the destruction it wreaked on small communities. ‘Paradise’, which was also known as ‘Mr Peabody’s Coal Train’, was about was about Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, the town his parents had grown up in – and how it was ruined by a coal company. Among the poetic, moving verses is: “Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel/And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land/Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken/Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.”
9: Jackson Browne: ‘Before The Deluge’ (1974)
On his 1974 environmental song, ‘Before The Deluge’, Jackson Browne told the story of his generation’s ideals and illusion, and their fall from grace. The song was eerily prophetic, with its stark warning: “Some of them were angry/At the way the earth was abused/By the men who learned how to forge her beauty into power/And they struggled to protect her from them/Only to be confused/By the magnitude of her fury in the final hour.” The song was from the album Late For The Sky, which featured Jai Winding, the son of Verve Records jazz trombonist Kai Winding, on keyboards. Versions have been recorded by musicians as diverse as Joan Baez and Christy Moore.
8: Cat Stevens: ‘Where Do The Children Play?’ (1970)
Cat Stevens wrote his song ‘Where Do The Children Play?’ for the 1970 album Tea For The Tillerman. The song reflects many of his concerns about poverty, war, ecological disaster, pollution and the future of the human race. Stevens became a Muslim later in the decade and is now known as Yusuf Islam. He remains committed to what he called “the harmony and balance of the universe”, and in May 2019 gave his support to Europe’s first green mosque, in Cambridge, which was clad in solar panels and surrounded by apple trees.
7: Michael Jackson: ‘Earth Song’ (1995)
‘Earth Song’, which appeared on the album HIStory: Past, Present And Future, Book I, was the best of Michael Jackson’s socially conscious songs. This sweeping track about the environment and welfare was a No.1 hit in the UK and went on to receive a Grammy nomination. It was notable for its powerful video, too.
6: Bob Marley: ‘Sun Is Shining’ (1978)
Bob Marley died in 1981, but his music continues to inspire people who love protest songs and care about the environment. In 2019, for example, Chicago’s The Rock And Roll Playhouse held an Earth Day celebration concert featuring tunes by the great master of reggae. Marley’s gorgeous song ‘Sun Is Shining’ was first recorded in the 60s and re-recorded for the album Kaya in 1978. Island Records boss Chris Blackwell later recalled, “The original version of ‘Sun Is Shining’ was produced by Lee Perry. I loved his production, which was very sparse. But the version we re-recorded for Kaya has a great atmosphere, too. We tried to reflect the essence of the song, which is saying the sun is shining but don’t forget that people are suffering too.”
5: Joni Mitchell: ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ (1971)
“I wrote ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ on my first trip to Hawaii,” Mitchell explained in 1996. “I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart… this blight on paradise. That’s when I sat down and wrote the song.” Mitchell’s mesmerising song has been covered by Bob Dylan, Counting Crows and Janet Jackson.
4: Bob Dylan: ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ (1962)
Bob Dylan was only 21 when he wrote the beautiful lyrics, such as “I’ve stumbled on the side of 12 misty mountains”, in ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, the iconic protest song in which he warned of impending apocalypse. In 2009, before a United Nations climate change conference began in Denmark, the UN Environment Programme released a rare live recording of Dylan performing his song-poem set to dramatic photographs of shrunken ice caps, barren landscapes and devastated lives.
3: Neil Young: ‘After The Gold Rush’ (1970)
The mysterious, multi-layered ‘After The Gold Rush’ is full of different themes and meanings, but there is one thing at the heart of the song: “‘After The Gold Rush’ is an environmental song,” said Neil Young. Dolly Parton has recorded several versions it. The line “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s” is memorably chilling, and has been updated by Young, who now sings “in the 21st Century” in concert. Young also wrote ‘Be The Rain’, a song that calls on the big oil companies to stop ruining the planet. In 1985, Willie Nelson, Young and John Mellencamp set up Farm Aid to increase awareness about the importance of family farms. Young has remained a committed environmental activist and in 2018 he criticised President Trump for his denial of climate-change science.
2: Marvin Gaye: ‘Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)’ (1971)
The beautiful voice of Marvin Gaye rings out in despair as he sings “Where did all the blue skies go?” on his Motown classic ‘Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)’, which was written for his 1971 album, What’s Going On. At the time, Motown boss Berry Gordy had not heard the word “ecology”, and Gaye’s masterful song may have been one of the first ever to deal with the mercury poisoning of fish. This is a sorrowful masterpiece and, given what we now know has happened to the environment in the past half-century, seems a moment of musical genius and foresight.
1: Louis Armstrong: ‘What A Wonderful World’ (1967)
‘What A Wonderful World’ is one of the most uplifting, life-affirming songs of all time – and all because of the heartfelt warmth in the singing of the jazz legend Louis Armstrong, a man who was already in failing health when he recorded the two-minute gem, written by Bob Thiele and George Weiss. Lush instrumentation introduces a magnificent song that opens with such memorable lines: “I see trees of green, red roses, too/I see them bloom for me and you/And I think to myself: What a wonderful world.”
It’s good to end on a note of positivity – so treat yourself on Earth Day and savour again the beauty of Satchmo’s hit.